ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) – Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s longtime ruler and a major U.S. counter-terrorism ally who is credited with economic gains but blamed for human rights abuses, died of an undisclosed illness after not being seen in his East African country for weeks, Ethiopian authorities said Tuesday. He was 57.
Hailemariam Desalegn, who was appointed deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs in 2010, became acting prime minister and will be sworn in as prime minister after an emergency meeting of parliament, said Bereket Simon, the communications minister. Parliament is controlled by Meles’ ruling party and governing coalition, ensuring Hailemariam will be approved. No new elections will be scheduled.
Reaffirming the U.S. commitment to Ethiopia, President Barack Obama said Meles deserved recognition for his contributions to his country’s development, including “his unyielding commitment to Ethiopia's poor.” But Obama also encouraged Ethiopia to enhance its support for democracy and human rights.
Born on May 8, 1955, Meles became president in 1991 after helping to oust Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Communist military junta, which was responsible for hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian deaths. Meles became prime minister in 1995, a position that is both the head of the federal government and armed forces.
Meles grew up in the northern town of Adwa, where his father had 13 siblings from multiple women. He moved to the capital, Addis Ababa, on a scholarship after completing an eight-year elementary education in just five.
Meles was the third African leader to die in office this year, following deaths in Malawi and Ghana. He is survived by his wife, Azeb Mesfin, a member of parliament, with whom he had three children.
State TV said funeral arrangements would be announced soon.
* Pictured above is Meles Zenawi.